The trials of girlhood

July 23, 1993

There is plenty of handwringing about teen-aged mothers. But what about the young adolescents who are likely candidates for early motherhood? Little attention has been directed toward the 11- to 14-year-old girls who are likely candidates for premature parenthood.

But there is every reason to think that much more could be done to help girls in this age group weather the storms of adolescence. Keeping girls healthy, motivated and self-confident -- providing attractive alternatives to motherhood -- may well be the most effective way of encouraging them to postpone pregnancy until they are better able to shoulder parental responsibilities.

Adolescence is not an easy time for either sex, but girls and boys experience the stresses of these years differently. Yet these differences rarely get the attention they deserve, and many programs designed for this age group are geared more to the needs of boys than girls. A recent evaluation by Girls Inc. (formerly Girls Clubs of America) of drug abuse prevention efforts provides a prime example. The organization notes that girls and boys are attracted to harmful substances for different reasons and often exhibit different patterns in their use. Girls are more likely to be obsessed with their body image; they are more vulnerable to peer pressure and generally seem to feel more stress than boys. They are also more likely than boys to encounter sexual abuse or harassment, problems which would inevitably add further distress to these sensitive years.

These factors play an important role in the reasons some girls are attracted to drug use. For instance, girls are more likely than boys to use cigarettes, diet pills or other substances to control their weight, and many drug-using girls say a major reason for their substance abuse is to counteract stress. Girls may also be more vulnerable to peer pressures to try substances, whether they are socially acceptable drugs like alcohol, tobacco or diet pills or illicit drugs urged on them by boyfriends.

With these differences in mind, Girls Inc. has designed substance abuse prevention efforts targeted at young girls that have produced encouraging results. The organization found that the programs are more likely to be successful in delaying or preventing substance use when they reach girls early in adolescence and when there is a concerted effort to help them learn to deal with peer pressure.

These findings underscore the importance of this crucial age -- and the need for programs and policies that will pay attention to young girls before they become mothers.

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